Posts Tagged ‘Exploration’

Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

January 30, 2018

The Voyage of the Beagle
Charles Darwin
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [1839]
432 p.

When Charles Darwin was yet in his early 20s he signed on as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle, bound on a circumnavigation voyage. The purpose of the journey was to chart the coastlines of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and to survey the coasts of Chile, Peru, and several Pacific islands, including the Galapagos. Of course, it turned out that this young scientist’s observations would, in time, overshadow everything else about the enterprise, but that was still several decades away. Upon returning home to England, Darwin published this charming account of the journey and the things he saw along the way.

He seems to have been a born naturalist, with a passion for knowledge of living things that few of us possess. At every opportunity he would make excursions inland, collecting specimens as he went, and reporting on them with winsome excitement: “This day I found a specimen of a curious fungus, called Hymenophallus“. He reports that during occasional bouts of illness he would nonetheless stagger from his bed to pursue his researches. And with each new discovery his wonder at the richness of it all comes shining through:

The number of minute and obscurely coloured beetles is exceedingly great. The cabinets of Europe can, as yet, boast only of the larger species from tropical climates. It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist’s mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue.

He remarks also on the surprising tameness of many of the animals found on remote islands unfrequented by men. On the Galapagos islands he found that he could hunt hawks using his gun in an unorthodox fashion: “with the muzzle I push a hawk off the branch of a tree”. And on the little island of San Pedro (now called South Georgia Island) he went fox hunting:

A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.

For most modern readers his reflections on the history and diversity of life is a principal attraction of the book. We sometimes forget that Darwin’s eventual contribution, in On the Origin of Species, would not be to argue that life on earth evolved, but to propose a particular kind of process — natural selection — as the principal means by which it did so. That species changed over time, and that the earth was of stupefying antiquity, was already well-known before he came along, and he himself is, of course, well aware of this. (He mentions Lamarck on one occasion.)

Nonetheless, he was a keen observer, and his reflections on what he saw retain their interest. He notices, for instance, “in two distant countries a similar relation between plants and insects of the same families, though the species of both are different,” and that although the species one observes change from place to place, proximate regions often have similar species occupying particular ecological niches; this was for him an important fact that deserved explanation:

The Tinochorus is closely related to some other South American birds. Two species of the genus Attagis are in almost every respect ptarmigans in their habits; one lives in Tierra del Fuego, above the limits of the forest land; and the other just beneath the snow-line on the Cordillera of Central Chile. A bird of another closely allied genus, Chionis alba, is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on sea-weed and shells on the tidal rocks. Although not web footed, from some unaccountable habit, it is frequently met with far out at sea. This small family of birds is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created.

Darwin was, even at this young age, an able geologist, and he makes frequent, detailed observations about the geological formations and history that he observes. Naturally he is also interested in the fossils in the rocks. He meditates on the temporal analogue of the regional variation of species — namely, that in a particular place the life-forms have varied over time — and that this temporal variation seems to follow no evident logic. Indeed, he concludes that “no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants.”

It was only when the voyage was reaching its final stages that it visited the Galapagos islands; it was, for most of the ship’s crew, something of an afterthought. But it was here that Darwin was confronted with puzzles of speciation and geography in a particularly clear way. He first noticed that although many of the species found on the Galapagos are unique to those islands, the overall impression one receives is that the creatures are similar to those found on mainland South America, rather than those found on neighbouring island formations:

It was most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants, and yet by innumerable trifling details of structure, and even by the tones of voice and plumage of the birds, to have the temperate plains of Patagonia, or rather the hot dry deserts of Northern Chile, vividly brought before my eyes.

But after visiting several of the islands in the group he noticed “the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago”, for not only were the forms of life on the islands different from those found elsewhere, but “the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings”. Each island had its own species of tortoise, of lizard, of finch, and of various plants. This he found very remarkable:

We have the truly wonderful fact, that in James Island, of the thirty-eight Galapageian plants, or those found in no other part of the world, thirty are exclusively confined to this one island; and in Albemarle Island, of the twenty-six aboriginal Galapageian plants, twenty-two are confined to this one island, that is, only four are at present known to grow in the other islands of the archipelago; and so on…

He finally described the islands of the group as “physically similar, organically distinct, yet intimately related to each other, and all related in a marked, though much lesser degree, to the great American continent”, and the effort to understand how this state of affairs might have come about would be an important influence on his writing of On the Origin of Species two decades later.


Apart from his observations of the flora and fauna, he also made interesting remarks on the peoples whom he encountered. I was delighted, for instance, to learn of a charming custom then current among the Catholic people of Uruguay:

On approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse: the formal answer of the owner is, “sin pecado concebida”—that is, conceived without sin.

He also experienced the amazement of less technologically advanced people at their first exposure to unfamiliar technology:

I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been.

At the southern tip of South America, in the region called Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle encountered a people who had little contact with the outside world and who lived what appeared to Darwin to be a life that barely provided for their material needs, with no intellectual or moral culture that he could discern. One reads his account with a kind of horrible fascination at the spectacle of a truly wild human tribe, of a kind that can probably no longer be found. Interestingly, he attributed their state in part to their lack of government or social hierarchy, remarking that “the perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization”, which is perhaps not what we, for whom “equality” is a master word, would have expected him to say. And though it might be easy to dismiss his comments on these matters as merely the prejudices of a Georgian-age gentleman, we note his fierce condemnations, elsewhere in the book, of slavery and all it stands for. He seems to have had no patience for claims of natural human inferiority (or superiority), but had no qualms about calling a spade a spade when it came to social and cultural achievements.


The voyage of the Beagle lasted about five years, and although of course much of that time was spent on the ship, Darwin took every opportunity to go ashore and explore, often under quite unpleasant conditions. He seems not to have minded. Oh sure, he complained that “a light stomach and an easy digestion are good things to talk about, but very unpleasant in practice”, and he had bad experiences, as when he was set upon by insects in his sleep:

At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body.

But as I read, I was repeatedly impressed at the hardiness of this astute young naturalist, who was happy to sleep outdoors, go without food, and walk long distances over difficult terrain in search of his treasures. And I, at least, am glad that he went to all the trouble, because even apart from its obvious interest as a prelude or an adjunct to his more famous book, The Voyage of the Beagle is a consistently enjoyable work of natural history and exploration.

Books briefly noted

July 17, 2013

Busy times, but here are brief notes on a handful of books I’ve read recently:

ciabbatoni-danteDante’s Journey to Polyphony
Francesco Ciabattoni
(University of Toronto Press, 2010)
264 p.

A scholarly monograph examining the place of music in the architecture of The Divine Comedy. Ciabattoni, a professor at Georgetown, sees Dante using references to music to deepen and enrich the political, moral, and religious themes of the poem. The basic claim can be briefly stated: in Inferno music is heard as a perverse parody of sacred liturgy, cacophonous and ugly; monophonic chant dominates Purgatorio, where it is a balm for wounded souls and an expression of spiritual solidarity; Paradiso enters the realm of polyphony, where the music of the spheres and a harmonious chorus of blessed souls express the unutterable beauty of beatitude. Speaking as a casual admirer of Dante, none of this strikes me as particularly surprising or controversial, but it is certainly valuable and interesting. Most intriguing was Ciabattoni’s observation that the cascading, intertwined vocal lines of polyphony serve Dante well as he approaches the highest heavens precisely because the complexity obscures the sung text, for the music is thus able to carry the soul beyond the limits of rational comprehension and into the realm of boundless love and beauty. Take that, Council of Trent! Ciabattoni develops his full argument in great detail.

hahn-signsSigns of Life
40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots
Scott Hahn
(Doubleday, 2009)
288 p.

Catholics are sometimes accused, by their separated brethren, of importing a lot of non-Biblical baggage into their practice of the faith; I won’t say that Scott Hahn set out specifically to counter that accusation (though, given his background in evangelical Protestantism, it might have been in the back of his mind), but he has countered it nicely all the same. He examines forty aspects of Catholic religious and devotional life, ranging from broad thoroughfares like “the Mass” and “Baptism” to nooks and crannies like “Novenas” and “Scapulars”, devoting five or six pages in each case tracing it to Biblical sources. Quite apart from whatever apologetic value the book may have, it also serves as a helpful primer on the wonderful variety and richness of Catholic faith and life. What would life be like without pilgrimage, the Church calendar, sacred images, and the tabernacle? I don’t want to think about it. The book would make a suitable gift for a Catholic convert, for a non-Catholic curious about Catholic practices, or for a cradle Catholic who wants to deepen their understanding of the tradition. Written in an accessible, even conversational, tone, it is the sort of book one can pick up now and then, read a few pages, and then set down again. It would serve well as a basis for family catechesis, or (as I can personally testify) as occasional bedtime reading.

kelly-musicEarly Music
A Very Short Introduction
Thomas Forrest Kelly
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
130 p.

The designation “early”, in this context, refers to music that was rarely or never heard prior to a revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century — namely, music of the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods, covering the years from roughly 1000 (coinciding with the invention of musical notation) to about 1750 or thereabouts. Bach is “early music”; Mozart, just a few decades later, is not. The book gives a nice introduction to the music of these times, pointing out the distinctive characteristics on the basis of which we carve it up into separate periods, and helpfully highlighting the performance challenges of the music, some of which survives only in ambiguous notation or assumes that players will improvise on the basis of the written score. Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard and long involved in early music circles, also devotes a substantial part of the book to a brief history of the “early music movement” of the past fifty years, which aimed to revive the repertoires, styles, and instruments of the past. He doesn’t shy away from skeptical questions about this quest for musical “authenticity” — after all, “period instruments” and “period playing” are all very well, but where shall we find a “period audience”? — but in my opinion the proof is in the pudding: without this music, and the dedication of those who try to bring it back to life, the world would be a much drabber place. The book is a pleasant little primer for those who love this music.

hurley-southSouth with Endurance
Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917
The Photographs of Frank Hurley
(BCL Press, 2001)
244 p.

A couple of years ago, during an Antarctica-themed blogging blitz, I wrote about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-starred Endurance expedition to the South Pole, which ranks as one of the great survival tales in the annals of exploration. (See here.) Frank Hurley was the expedition’s photographer, and this beautiful coffee-table book gathers together the photographs that he was able to save from the hazards of ice and ocean. There is some background information given on the expedition and on Hurley, but naturally the pictures are the main attraction, and spectacular they are. Readers who want a good, detailed telling of the story should look elsewhere (specifically, to Lansing’s Endurance), but I would argue that this pictorial volume is an indispensable companion.

Roald Amundsen

February 18, 2011

Roald Amundsen was a man of many accomplishments, one of which was that he led the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole. He had also been to the North Pole, and had led the first successful traversal of the Northwest Passage. He was a consummate professional who knew exactly what he was doing, and executed his plans with care and precision. He made it look easy.

If you have ever wondered why the men who explored the polar regions did what they did, it is illuminating to recall Amundsen’s childhood in Norway. As a young boy he had been fascinated by Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, and apparently he even tried eating his shoe to see whether he could survive in those harsh conditions. In his book Roald Amundsen: A Saga of the Polar Seas J. Alvin Kugelmass tells us this about Amundsen’s boyhood:

During the months when the weather was fiercest, from November through April, he was rarely home on his days off from school. He went out, usually alone, to traverse the craggy mountains that ring Oslo. He preferred to be alone, for he wanted to test himself against the rugged terrain and the elements without having to explain to a school chum why he was doing so.

There was something in him that pushed him out to the margins.

It is easy to admire Amundsen, but it is hard to love him. Part of the pleasure of reading about Antarctic exploration and adventure is that one can admire the dogged determination and heroic perseverance of the explorers in the face of overwhelming difficulties. They struggled for their lives  in unimaginably harsh conditions, and we are amazed at them, whether they succeeded or not.

Amundsen, precisely because of his cool professionalism, rather spoiled things from this point of view. He arrived on the scene, with his dogs and his skis and his small group of men. His objective was to reach the South Pole, and he did so. His account of the journey is rather perfunctory: they skied a certain distance, camped, did a bit of scouting, had a good sleep, and then continued the next day. There is none of the struggle and agony that one finds in Scott’s journals, for instance, and also none of the warmth and heart. Amundsen completed his journey, there and back, without any major problems.

He reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911, after a journey of almost two months. At that point Scott and his party were already well into their trek, and they arrived just over a month later to find the Norwegian flag flying at the Pole.

Amundsen never returned to Antarctica, but he did continue his activity in the Arctic. In 1928, when he was 55 years old, he boarded an airplane to help search for an airship, the Italia, which was flying exploratory missions in the north and had crashed. His plane was lost, probably in the Barents Sea, with Amundsen and the others on board presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Amundsen at the South Pole.

Antarctica explored

February 11, 2011

Detail of Antarctic coastline, from Wilkes Map (1840). (Source: New Zealand History Online)

After the first landing on the Antarctic Peninsula, in 1821, further exploration proceeded slowly. A number of expeditions, often government sponsored, explored the waters around Antarctica, discovering the main island groups and mapping sections of the Antarctic coastline. It became gradually clear that there was a large continent at the Pole, not just a group of islands. Brief landings were made here and there, but no substantial exploration of the interior was undertaken.

In the 1840s a British naval expedition led by James Clark Ross made a bold approach to the continent. Ross was a seasoned polar explorer who, a decade previously, had been the first to reach the North Magnetic Pole. On his Antarctic expedition he ploughed through a very substantial ice pack and broke through to a previously undiscovered bay, now known as the Ross Sea in his honour. He charted the region carefully, and that area eventually became the preferred landing place for the later, more famous, British expeditions.

James Clark Ross in profile, with a map of the Ross Sea. (Source: Antarctic Overseas Exchange Office)

From roughly the turn of the twentieth century to roughly the end of the 1920s, a period now called the “heroic age” of exploration, there was a flurry of Antarctic activity. Expeditions from Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Australia, and Norway all made their way to the southern continent, with various ambitions and various degrees of success. It would be too tedious and time-consuming for me to enumerate each of these expeditions — Wikipedia, in any case, lays things out very clearly — but let me draw attention to a few highlights:

  • In 1899 the British Southern Cross Expedition, led by Carsten Borchgrevink, was the first to spend a winter on the Antarctic mainland.
  • In 1902-3 the British Discovery Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, set a new record by trekking south to latitude 82°17′.
  • In 1908-9 the British Nimrod Expedition, led by Ernest Shackleton, reached latitude 88°23′ before being forced to turn back. Other expedition members reached the South Magnetic Pole.
  • Late in 1911 a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole. Members of the British Terra Nova Expedition, again led by Robert Falcon Scott, achieved the same goal early in 1912. More on that anon.

As is clear from this brief list, the principal achievements were made mostly by the British. In those days before the First World War the idea of British Empire was still a living one, and they seem to have regarded Antarctica as somehow their own — not in any formal sense, but almost naturally. Few others, in any case, were willing to mount the effort required. I find it interesting to see that the Americans were entirely absent from Antarctic exploration in this period.

Before the month is through, I’ll return to some of these expeditions to look at them more closely. Without this post, however, there would have been an awkward gap between the initial discovery of the continent and the particular events of particular expeditions. I hope that the gap has been at least partially papered over now.